The Man was grateful to find the cave, tucked low into the cliff face, as the skies outside hastened to darken and the wind began to pull at their tattered clothes. The ocean battered hard against the nearby rocks, sending spray up into the air to meet the rain before the wind caught them both, sea and sky, and whipped them hard against the Man and the Boy, each droplet a lash against their exposed faces. The Man hurried the Boy into the cave, shaking water from his clothes forcefully, trying to hide the way his body tremored. He didn’t know how long they would have survived out there. A flash of lighting gave a glimpse of the dank cave before the sky cracked with thunder, so loud it seemed to enter the cave, echoing through the hollow, past the two of them until the echo came only from the unseen depths of the cave, as if from some unseen abomination. Finally, the cave swallowed the last of the thunder and the only sound remaining was the steadily increasing torrents of rain buffeting the front of the cave and the rock cliffs outside.
Contrary to the Man, the Boy was not happy to have entered the cave. Young as he was, he didn’t yet have reason to fear the rain. The chill it might give him lasted only until the sun next peeked through the clouds. It didn’t nestle into his bones, sink its teeth into his soul like it did the Man. Yes, the Boy didn’t like the way the rain soaked into their things, how it wettened what little food they carried and gave it a musty taste, but the rain still held a cleansing quality to him. It was the only time he bathed, although he didn’t have the words to call it that. Most importantly, he liked the way the rain presented itself, falling far from clouds which announced their intent long before they took action. Rain did not sneak up on them. Rain covered their tracks and concealed their presence. That is why he was so hesitant to crawl deeper into the cave. Here, danger could be anywhere, its arrival unannounced.
Eventually the Man decided they had gone deep enough into the cave, dropping his backpack to the ground with a heavy sigh. Papa was usually more careful, thought the Boy. Usually he would check out these places on his own, making the Boy hide in a bush or up a tree. Those were the rules. Stay here while I look for monsters, Papa would say, but the Boy knew what that meant. Other people. Survivors. But today, the Boy could see Papa was tired. Too tired to follow the rules. The Boy looked at the entrance to the cave, now a far away window of light. He looked the other way, deeper into the cave, and his eyes struggled to make sense of the darkness. The window’s opposite. Stalagmites loomed in the distance. Hunched, skinny figures like Papa. The Boy’s eyes darted between them, alert for movement.
Another flash of lightning lit the recesses of the cave once more. The Boy saw no movement amongst the rocks, but the Man saw a gift. A pile of wood, cast here by sea or survivors he didn’t know. He walked carefully to the pile. A twisted ankle here would spell death for him and the Boy. He knelt, his knees sinking slightly into a wet muck, and blindly scooped up as much wood as he could carry. Setting it down in front of the Boy, he leaned some of the smaller bits of wood against one another. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a small baggie. From inside the baggie, he pulled out the matchbox and a crumpled napkin. He set the napkin alight and placed it inside his wooden tent. Shortly they had a fire.
The Man could see the Boy’s face now, and the worry that sat there. He watched the Boy’s brow crease as he looked deeper into the cave. Following his gaze, the Man watched as the light of the fire danced off the forms of the stalagmites and realized how, to the Boy, it must look like the stones were the ones doing the dancing. A sadness came over the Man. This world wasn’t suited for children. The Man remembered back when he was a boy, and the afternoons he would spend in the garden playing all sorts of fantastical games, with spaceships and knights and dragons to be slain. His Boy never had this chance. His imagination sought only survival. Even now, the Man could see him thinking, what if this stone becomes a man, comes for Papa? What will I do? His fantasy was replaced by fear. Uncertainty.
As he went to crouch again by the fire, the Man placed his hands on his knees, feeling the wetness of whatever he had knelt in. He pulled his hand away, leaning it towards the light, and saw his hand was smeared with a dullish gray-brown. He rubbed his hands together and felt the material rub together into a ball. It was clay. He stood excitedly, too quickly and needed to steady himself against the cave wall. The Boy looked at him, full again of that same worry, but the man hurried over to where he had knelt and scraped a big handful of clay from the ground. He brought it back to the fire and sat beside the Boy.
“Look,” he said, rolling the material into a ball and showing it in the fire’s light. “This is clay.”
“Clay,” the Boy repeated. He looked down at the ball of clay, but the Man could tell his attention was still stuck further into the cave.
“I used to love playing with this when I was a boy,” the Man said, working the material in his strong hands. Although much of the Man’s body felt weak, skin stretched over bone, his hands retained a semblance of the strength he’d once had. He pushed and pulled at the clay, shaping it into a longer, narrow piece. He pulled smaller sections off into little outcroppings and scraped parts with the nail of his index finger to draw lines down the main length. The Boy watched with increased interest as a form began to emerge.
“It looks like a tree,” the Boy said.
“Yes,” said the Man. He held the tree out in front of him and the Boy came closer to look, forgetting what monsters lurked back in the cave depths. The light of the fire illuminated the tree, casting a large shadow against the cave wall. The Man watched as the tree took root in the Boy’s mind, tendril roots sinking down in search of fertile soil. The Man wiggled his hand slightly and the tree wavered, billowed by an unseen wind. He watched as the tree grew leaves. Tiny pinpricks of green sprouting, unfolding into massive plates of green, shaking in the wind like a crowd of dancers. He listened to them rustle as they shook and changed, to the yellow of a rising sun into the red-orange of a setting one, the leaves falling one at a time and all at once to his palm. The Boy, transfixed, waited until the last leaf had fallen before asking:
“What else can it do?”
“Well,” the Man smiled, clasping his hands around the tree, rolling it back into a single ball. “That’s the beauty of clay. It can be whatever you want.”
He thought for a moment. His brain, like the rest of his body, was overworked and under-fed. Ideas came slowly, and thinking felt like trudging through deep snow. There was a time when this would have come much quicker to him. Finally he thought of something he thought the Boy would like.
“Remember the day we saw smoke rising from the mountain?” The Man asked as he worked again at the clay, cocking his tongue against the inside of his cheek as he looked closely at the ever-changing ball of clay. The Boy regarded him curiously, the Man working with a sharpness of focus the Boy hadn’t seen in a long time.
“Yes, Papa. I remember.”
“And what did we see that day?” The Man asked, tearing off a chunk of clay and pressing it into a new position. He glanced back up at the Boy, who stared intently at the developing figure. “In the sky, what did we see?”
The Boy’s frow burrowed. Rarely did they see anything new. Fires, trees, caves. Buildings, collapsed or nearly. It was all the same. What could Papa mean? The Boy leaned forward until his face was just inches from the Man’s hands, trying to guess what hidden form would appear this time.
“A bird!” The Boy exclaimed. His voice rang off the walls, as though the stalagmites had found birds of their own.
“A bird.” The Man smiled. He opened his hands and in his palm sat a little sparrow. His beak came to a narrow point and his wings spread out the width of the Man’s hand. The Boy watched as the sparrow took flight, its shadow cast on the ceiling. The bird dipped and turned in the air, avoiding the fat droplets of water that dripped from the stalactites above. It flew just over the Boy’s head, whipping up strangs of his messy hair, before coming to rest again on Papa’s palm. It pecked at his thumb and the Man feigned how much it hurt him. Just over the din of the rain outside, the Boy could hear the bird sing a delicate little song. He smiled and laughed, and the Man smiled and laughed too.
The Man squished the clay between his hands, collapsing the sparrow back to nothingness.
“Your turn,” the Man said, handing the primordial ball of clay to the young Boy. “I need to tend to the fire. You can make anything you want. Anything at all. Even things which don’t exist anywhere but here.” He poked the Boy’s forehead and stood up, moving towards the pile of wood.
The Boy took the clay in both hands, feeling its sticky weight. He pushed and pulled on it, like he’d seen Papa do, testing how it conformed to his will. His hands were much smaller and the clay didn’t move as easily for him as it seemed to do for Papa. But what to make? The Man piled more wood onto the fire and looked back to see the Boy jutting out his own tongue in unconscious imitation, and it warmed him in a way the fire never would.
After some time, an idea struck the Boy and he began working feverishly at the clay. The Man watched from afar, sneaking glances as he crouched by the fire, while the Boy folded and placed the clay, surely seeing in his mind’s eye the form which the clay asked him to make. When it looked as though he was happy with his work, the Man walked over and sat beside the Boy.
“Well, what do you have?”
The Boy held the figure close to his chest, as though debating whether to show the Man. Before the Man could ask again, the Boy held his creation aloft in front of him.
“It’s you, Papa.”
The Man looked at his reflection. A thin, gaunt, grey figure, with narrow arms and over-sized clay clumps of hands. The figure’s spine curled forward into a hunchback, but the Man couldn’t tell if that detail was by accident or intention. He hardly knew the answer for his own spine. The clay-Man’s face was simple, with a tight, pinched nose and a harshly cut horizontal gash as a mouth. Atop his head sat a messy roll of long, grey hair. The little clay-Man didn’t run or fly around the cave like the sparrow had. It just seemed to look, both at the cave and the Man, with a sad, dour expression.
“Don’t you like it, Papa?”
“I do, son. I do.” The Man hastened to smile and tousled the Boy’s hair. “I just thought you might make something different is all. You could make anything you wanted.”
The Boy looked down again at the clay-Man.
“I couldn’t think of anything else to make.”
“I understand,” the Man said. “Come, we should eat.”
The Boy set the clay-Man down on the floor of the cave beside the fire and followed the Man to his bag. The Man produced a small bundle and from it pulled out a hard chunk of bread, a small piece of dried fish, and a granola bar, still in its wrapper. They sat and ate, listening to the rain outside. The Man gave the Boy most of the granola bar and it was so sweet he thought he might be sick. Shortly thereafter they fell asleep as the fire dwindled to embers. In the morning they rose and packed their things. It had stopped raining and so they left, out through the window of light that had brought them here.
In the cave, the forgotten little clay-Man remained. Its soft surface had been hardened by the fire, the cave acting as its kiln. The clay-Man’s body baked, growing thinner even than before, as it darkened from its original grey-brown to nearly black. As the Boy and the Man exited the cave, the Boy thought about returning for it, but figured the Man would not approve. And so it stayed, lying still in the darkness, indistinguishable from stone.
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Characters named Man and Boy remind me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.